Chap Chamroeuntola is alone on stage. Dressed in a long pleated skirt and tight-fitting tunic, the 29-year-old stands on her left leg, eyes downcast. Her right foot is flexed, the sole facing the ceiling, and her wrists and ankles are strung with gold bangles. Despite the challenging pose and a towering gilt headdress, she is completely still. As the music rises to a crescendo she remains motionless. Then her eyes, heavily ringed in kohl, dart up and she looks directly at the 74-year-old woman wrapped in a pink shawl sitting in the third row.
Princess Norodom Buppha Devi, half-sister of Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihamoni, does not take her eyes off the dancer. No one in the packed Studio Theatre does. Slowly, Chap Chamroeuntola lowers her leg and turns, her arms held high, her fingers flexed against the joints. She moves as if in a trance and when six dancers join her on stage they, too, move as though under a spell. The Royal Ballet of Cambodia made its Hong Kong debut last weekend with three shows at the Cultural Centre, in Tsim Sha Tsui.
Earlier on August 24, with the second of the twin typhoons to have recently battered Hong Kong bearing down, I sit backstage with Chap Chamroeuntola. Barefoot and dressed in a simple training outfit of loose Khmer-style trousers and a fitted top, she tells me that she began studying classical ballet in 1995, when she was seven years old.
“My parents forced me to go because they were worried I was turning into a tomboy,” she confides.
Seeing her on stage it’s hard to believe she was ever anything but feminine, and she is equally graceful in her movements offstage. Chap Chamroeuntola disliked the early years of her training and the hour each morning spent bending her fingers back into the hyperextended position that is typical of classical Cambodian ballet.
“In the beginning, my teacher used a scarf to wrap around my hand and pull it back,” says the dancer.
This calls the Chinese practice of foot binding to mind and I ask whether it hurts, if some of the young dancers are left injured by the practice, but she insists not. “When we are young our body is much more flexible,” she says.
It takes nine years to learn the movements and the dances, she says. During that time she studied the history of classical ballet and fell in love with the art.
“The more I learned about the history, the more I got into it,” she says. “I want to keep doing this to help my country, I will do everything I can to protect the classical dance.”
If the dancers’ costumes and poses seem familiar to those who have not seen a performance by the Royal Ballet of Cambodia, the stone carvings at Angkor Wat might be the reason why. Its bas-reliefs show apsaras – celestial dancers – in all their gilded finery, dancing for the gods. And it’s at the ancient temple complex that the Royal Ballet of Cambodia originated – dance, drama and music performed as ritual offerings for the gods.
“When Angkor Wat was built it was for the god Vishnu, an Indian god. Most of our [Khmer] culture is originally from India, even our written language is from Sanskrit,” says Prince Sisowath Tesso, who is director of the Royal Ballet and who, along with the princess, his second cousin, has accompanied the elite troupe – 14 dancers, five musicians and three vocalists – on their Hong Kong visit.
Historical inscriptions at the temples show Angkor kings kept hundreds of dancers in their royal courts and that apsara presentations would sometimes last through the night. King Jayavarman VII built Ta Prohm, a temple today shrouded in dense jungle, in 1186. Records show that he had 615 dancers and 18 high priests stationed at the temple.
“In the beginning it was a sacred dance,” says the prince. “The king had a duty to build the temple when he came to the throne and to provide the dancers, musicians and food – everything that was needed to do the daily ceremonial prayers for the gods.”
This explains why Chap Chamroeuntola and the other dancers appear to move in a trance-like state; they are praying. Serei Vankosaun, a 22-year-old dancer with the ballet, explains: “Cambodian ballet is spiritual. When we are on stage, we are praying for prosperity for our country and other countries. The dancer is the messenger between humans and the divine being. When we are on stage, we are not ourselves any more.”
Each one of the dancers’ movements has meaning. Chap Chamroeuntola demonstrates by holding her hands in front of her body, fingers splayed and pointing upwards. This pose, she says, represents leaves. Keeping her fingers in the same position she crosses her hands at the wrist.
“When we put the hands – the leaves – together, then it means love,” she says. “The movements when combined have different meaning.”
The more you understand, the more poetic the ballet becomes – an intricate sign language that slowly reveals itself.
Graceful serenity aside, one of the most impressive aspects of Cambodian classical dance is how it has stood the test of time, making the necessary evolution for its survival. When the Khmer empire collapsed in the 15th century, signalling the end of Brahmanism and the embrace of Buddhism, the sacred dancing found a refuge.
“The royal family kept Brahmanism tradition alive so even though the king was no more a Brahmanist – he didn’t need to provide everything for the temple as before – he still followed the Hindu tradition,” says Sisowath Tesso.
The Cambodian royal family prides itself on taking a keen interest in the arts and for centuries the classical dances and movements – rarely performed outside the royal court – were passed down from one generation to the next.
In the mid-20th century, Queen Preah Maha Kshatriyani Kossamak was instrumental in the revival of Cambodian classical dance, which up until then had been in decline. In the 1950s, she brought men into the previously all-female troupe, to play the distinctive animal role of monkeys. She also compressed story ballets into one-hour re-enactments that could be performed for guests of the state. And she brought her granddaughter, Norodom Buppha Devi, into the royal dance troupe.
“I started dancing when I was five,” says the princess, speaking through an interpreter. “My grandmother, Queen Kossamak, trained me. She was a very good choreographer. When I was six I joined the ballet.”
In 1959, aged 15, the princess, whose name means “goddess of flowers”, became the premiere dancer of the Royal Ballet and she married Bruno Forsinetti, the son of an Italian diplomat in Cambodia. By the age of 18 she was granted the title of prima ballerina, a role in which she toured the world with her grandmother and the dance troupe, performing in public. This marked a major departure; in the past the ballet had been performed only before royalty to commemorate their ancestors and honour the gods.
In 1964, she accompanied her father, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, on a state visit to France. Granted the privilege of the stage at the Opera de Paris, she captivated the French audience. Gossip magazines of the day were filled with photographs of the glamorous princess, her Italian husband and their young daughter.
“When my father used to travel abroad, he always wanted to show something of what Cambodia is like, so he usually brought the Royal Ballet troupe to show Cambodian culture,” recalls the princess.
Norodom Buppha Devi’s mother was not a dancer, preferring to play the khloy, a traditional Cambodian flute. And no interest was shown in dancing for the Royal Ballet by the princess’ five children. (She had a daughter – Princess Norodom Chansita – with her first husband, Forsinetti, and went on to marry three more times, each time to a Cambodian prince, having four more children.)
The princess remembers her days dancing with the Royal Ballet as an exciting time. She relished the opportunities to perform overseas, she says. But then came the dark days for Cambodia and she was forced into exile in France. Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge tortured and killed thousands of artists, intellectuals and scholars. An estimated 90 per cent of dancers with the Royal Ballet perished. Norodom Buppha Devi fled to Paris with her family.
“Everything was destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, it was the hardest time for us,” says the princess, who serves as choreographer, teacher and mentor for the dancers of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia.
The Paris Peace Accords of 1991 led, two years later, to a new constitution that restored the Cambodian monarchy – and with that came a drive to revive the Royal Ballet.
“When there was peace, I went looking for the dancers,” says the princess. “Many of them had gone [into exile] in Thailand and came back. I found some and we made a troupe and I set up a school.”
The Khmer classical dance tradition had been preserved throughout history through living memory, court dancers becoming teachers who passed their knowledge on to the next generation. With so many killed under Pol Pot’s regime, there was a danger that the art form would be lost forever.
“I am happy to teach the dancers,” says Norodom Buppha Devi. “The most important thing is to work with love.”
When the princess says she teaches the dancers, she means exactly that. This is no mere royal pastime, it is an all-absorbing vocation. The school she built is in the grounds of her private home and she teaches there five days a week.
Serei Vankosaun was nine years old when she began learning classical dance. After seeing her perform, the princess handpicked her to join the royal troupe.
“I was nervous [when I auditioned], but also excited because it has always been my dream to be chosen by the princess to dance in the Royal Ballet,” says Serei Vankosaun. “It is an honour to go to her place every day to train.”
Norodom Buppha Devi is a hands-on teacher, according to Serei Vankosaun, who at 40kg is the most petite of the dancers who performed last weekend. The princess corrects the postures of the dancers and also oversees the musicians and singers who rehearse at the school.
Although she no longer dances herself, the princess continues to practice the meditation that is as necessary for the dancers as the physical rehearsals.
“It’s important that the dancers have a clear mind to be able to be the messenger to bring peace from God to the people on Earth,” she says. “For this we need to train the mind. I still do meditation, this will always be part of my life.”
Chap Chamroeuntola was selected by the princess to join the troupe in 2003. In the same year, Unesco declared the Royal Ballet of Cambodia a “masterpiece of oral and intangible heritage”.
“We performed one by one for the princess,” recalls Chap Chamroeuntola, now also a teacher. “At that time she selected about 20 dancers from 60. It was very tough, but we respect the princess.”
The Unesco intangible cultural heritage status has helped to raise the profile of the dance form, but the ballet still suffers from a lack of funding. According to the most recent Unesco report on the subject, it is at “risk of becoming a mere tourist attraction”.
“The challenge always is to find the financing,” says the princess, who served as the minister of culture and fine arts from 1998 to 2004. “When we perform overseas we have no funding from the ministry [of culture and fine arts] so it’s difficult because we have a lot of people to bring.”
It’s not just overseas audiences the Royal Ballet of Cambodia wants to appeal to. At home, the classical dance form is unknown to many and, in December, the troupe will perform at Chaktomuk Theatre, in front of the Royal Palace, in Phnom Penh, with tickets priced cheaply in a bid to attract a young audience.
“There is a lot of interest from the young generation because many were not even born during the war years,” says Sisowath Tesso. “Now they are adolescents, the country is more developed, and they are interested in learning about their culture.”
The show in Hong Kong is a pared-back affair in comparison with performances in Cambodia, featuring 22 dancers, singers and musicians where 70 artists might be involved.
“It’s expensive to bring so many people overseas so the princess selected the best dancers,” says the prince.
Tickets were reasonably priced, with the aim not of making a profit but of bringing the ballet to a Hong Kong audience.
“I hope that the Hong Kong people will appreciate the performance,” confides the princess ahead of the shows. “It’s the first time for us to perform in Hong Kong. I want to show Cambodian art to the Hong Kong people.
“All the dances are my favourite ones – I used to dance them myself.”